Yutan Getzler, Associate Professor of Chemistry, co-published with Geoffrey Coates (Cornell University) a review article titled “Chemical recycling to monomer for an ideal, circular polymer economy.” It appeared in the July 2020 issue of Nature Reviews Materials and you can read it in its entirety online.
The majority of post-consumer plastic waste is not recycled. Impediments to the recycling of commodity polymers include separation, impurities and degradation of the macromolecular structures, all of which can negatively affect the properties of recycled materials. An attractive alternative is to transform polymers back into monomers and purify them for repolymerization — a form of recycling we term chemical recycling to monomer (CRM). Material recycled in this way exhibits no loss in properties, creating an ideal, circular polymer economy. This review presents our vision for realizing a circular polymer economy based on CRM. We examine the energetics of polymerization and other challenges in developing practical and scalable CRM processes. We briefly review attempts to achieve CRM with commodity polymers, including through polyolefin thermolysis and nylon 6 ring-closing depolymerization, and closely examine the recent flourishing of CRM with new-to-the-world polymers. The benefits of heterocycle ring-opening polymerization are discussed in terms of synthetic control and kinetically accessible polymer-backbone functionality. Common chemical and structural characteristics of CRM-compatible ring-opening-polymerization monomers are identified, and the properties, benefits and liabilities of these recyclable polymers are discussed. We conclude with our perspective on the ideals and opportunities for the field.